Gators head to meaningful SEC Tournament

The trip to Hoover, Ala., to open the postseason hasn’t meant a lot to Florida in recent years.

Last season, the Gators had a national seed wrapped up before heading to the SEC Tournament but still played their way to the tournament’s final game before falling to LSU. The 2013 SEC Tournament seemed important for Florida to win and get into the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators dropped the first game to Texas A&M and still made it in.

From 2010-12, Florida made the trip to Hoover with its national seed basically locked up and not much on the line.

The SEC Tournament hasn’t usually meant much to Florida under Kevin O’Sullivan. This year is different.

The Gators are in a battle with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt for what could turn out to be one national seed. Florida has the best resume of the three going into the week, but that could change if the Gators struggle. It makes this week very important for Florida and will give them a glimpse into competition it will face in the NCAA Tournament.

“This tournament forces you to minimize your mistakes,” O’Sullivan said. “You have to play clean. If you don’t play clean, you’re going to end up back on the bus going home. The level of competition prepares you for Regional play, and every year it’s the same thing. The league is as deep as it has ever been. The depth of this league shows up in the tournament and prepares you for Regional play.”

Florida will open the tournament at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday’s Arkansas-Tennessee matchup.

To keep the rotation on normal rest, Florida will start Dane Dunning on Wednesday. The sophomore hasn’t started a game since struggling against Kentucky on April 25. O’Sullivan expects to need four starting pitchers during the postseason, and Wednesday offers a chance for Dunning to start a game while also keeping everyone else on their normal schedule.

“He needs to get out there and throw the ball,” O’Sullivan said. “He hasn’t started in a couple weeks.”

Dunning has an electric arm and can be a solid starter when he’s throwing strikes, but he has been too prone to blowups on the mound. If that happens on Wednesday, the Gators will be going to the bullpen early.

Either team would be a challenge for Florida. Tennessee took the SEC opener in Gainesville this year, but the Gators bounced back and won the final two games to clinch the series. Florida didn’t play Arkansas this year.

“Every team in this league is very capable,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s another great year for the SEC, very competitive. When you get down to this part of the year, it’s a great challenge and you can measure where you’re at. Hopefully you want to play your best baseball at the end of the year, and also get some guys some experience that you might have to lean on in a Regional.”


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